Is Elizabeth Warrens New Job a Blessing or a Curse

Reports are conflicting, details are uncertain, the White House isn’t talking on-the-record, and after a confusing evening, it’s still unclear exactly what is going on with Elizabeth Warren’s next job. In one sense, it looks like President Barack Obama is pulling out all the stops to get Warren running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In another, it looks like a creative, empty gesture intended to push a powerful reformer to the sidelines.

An official announcement will likely come on Friday, but here’s the plan as it stands: Warren a special adviser of some sort to both President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner charged with setting up the CFPB. She may or may not be formally nominated for Senate confirmation as CFPB Director at later date. Her position at the White House will be “Assistant to the President,” the same title held by Rahm Emmanuel and Valerie Jarret.

The Dodd-Frank bill allows an interim CFPB director to run the agency under the Treasury Department’s authority. As a result, if Obama had simply named Warren interim head of the CFPB, she would report directly to Geithner, who has not always been on friendly terms with Warren, and was reported to be blocking her nomination earlier this summer. The bureaucratic knife-fighting among Obama’s economic team can be pretty fierce. Christina Romer is widely believed to have left her post as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers because Larry Summers had successfully walled her off from Obama. Paul Volcker was pretty much ignored for the vast majority of Obama’s financial reform effort, as Geithner pushed for weaker measures than those Volcker advocated.

So Obama is also going to make Warren an adviser who reports not only to Treasury, but directly to the president himself. We’ll see how this works in practice, but Obama is certainly trying to assure reform advocates that he’s serious about the Warren appointment. It is not standard White House practice for Obama to circumvent Geithner, or even to acknowledge the reform community’s uneasiness with Geithner. If Obama actually plans to listen to Warren, he is not only putting the right person in the right job at the right time, he’s using the appointment to show that he is very serious about reining in Wall Street’s consumer abuses.

Whatever the technical specifics, the important thing is for Warren to actually have power over the new agency and be able to get to work fast. But if Warren were formally nominated as CFPB director, she’d be barred from speaking publicly about the agency until she was officially confirmed by the Senate. In the face of a Republican filibuster, that could take months.

Yves Smith expresses the major concern with the nonstandard appointment perfectly: Warren could become another Volcker, somebody who the administration systematically ignores except when it needs to score political points with reformers. The farce this year with the Volcker Rule was pretty transparent– Obama made a big show about endorsing Volcker’s plans to break up the big banks and ban them from gambling with taxpayer money. Then the narrative shifted. Suddenly the Volcker Rule didn’t include breaking up the banks at all. And then the administration effectively abandoned even the proprietary trading aspect, letting the rule be punched through with gaping, unnecessary loopholes.

If Smith is right, it would be an overwhelming disappointment, and an inexcusable presidential failure. But bear in mind that Warren’s position as Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP is almost completely powerless. She has almost zero statutory authority to do anything, and yet she’s transformed the post into one of the most effective platforms for serious policy discussion in Washington. It’s the only panel that actually holds powerful people accountable or explains complex issues to the public in clear terms. When it was created, people thought it was a joke– window-dressing oversight that would allow Treasury to get away with anything. It hasn’t worked out that way because of Warren’s leadership. If Obama does indeed try to scuttle her, don’t count on Warren quietly fading away into irrelevance.

There’s no middle ground on this move. Obama is either getting creative and going to the mat for Warren, making a strong policy pick and a grand gesture of his seriousness about financial reform– or he’s trying to throw Warren under the bus without enraging reformers before the election. And for now, the White House still isn’t talking.

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